Challengers square off with council members during Clarkston City Council forumClarkston City Hall. Photo by Dean Hesse.
Clarkston, GA – Moving Clarkston forward was the prevailing theme of a Decaturish.com candidate forum held on Sept. 27.
Incumbent city council members Laura Hopkins and Debra Johnson along with challengers Dr. Charles Jenkins, Dean Moore, and Mark Perkins participated in Decaturish’s candidate forum held on Sept. 27. Krista Durant and incumbent Awet Eyasu did not participate.
Both Dean Moore and Mark Perkins are former city council members as well as current candidates.
All the Clarkston council positions are “at large,” meaning that all residents of Clarkston vote for all seats. Three of the five seats are up for election this year, and the top three vote-getters will win places on the council.
Looming large over this year’s election is a recent controversy involving former city manager Shawanna Qawiy. The city council parted ways with her in early August after a staffing crisis saw the ranks of the police department dwindle. Qawiy was accused of creating a toxic work environment in the city. The incumbent council members largely remained silent on the crisis for weeks until finally addressing the matter, creating a rift between the city’s government and its residents.
In response to a question, Johnson acknowledged why the race has drawn several challengers and that citizens have reason to be unhappy. Johnson said that the council is constrained not to share some information with the public because of the nature of the situation.
Hopkins said it was easy for her to understand why people are frustrated, and she feels that the problem was complicated by advice from the Georgia Municipal Association, which recommends city council members should only communicate with city staff through the city manager.
Hopkins added that Qawiy had worked previously as the planning and development manager and had worked for the city for eight years in total and her tenure with the city deserved careful consideration before action was taken.
Jenkins said that there is a perceived lack of effective government and lack of transparency.
“The community shouldn’t be getting this information—no disrespect to you–-from Decaturish first…We shouldn’t be hearing about city hall on the news,” Jenkins said.
Moore had a more straightforward take.
“The reason people were outraged was because the police department was losing personnel, and the city manager was doing nothing about it,” Moore said, adding that losing security makes people feel threatened.
Moore said that he feels that the former city manager leaving helped, but suggested offering hiring incentives to build the police force back up to full strength.
Moore added that he was involved in hiring the city’s first city manager. Robin Gomez departed as city manager in 2021.
“I’m looking forward to getting involved in hiring the next city manager, so we can move forward into the future,” Moore said.
Perkins said while he agrees that lack of communication from the city is a central problem, he disagrees that members of the community don’t have all the facts.
“Anyone in the community can submit an open records request and see the things that have come to light through the various news outlets,” Perkins said.
Perkins said that people had safety concerns driven by well-known facts such as the shoot-out at one of the city’s parks, insight into what was going on behind the scenes, and officers coming to city council meetings saying that they didn’t have backup when they needed it.
“That’s a serious issue. As a dad with kids, and even as a community member, I want to know that our community is safe,” Perkins said.
Restoring trust in Clarkston’s government
In response to a question about building back public trust, Johnson said that she would start by making sure that the city’s website and other public information is transparent. She added that the city is in the process of hiring a needed communications person and that she felt that communications between the council, mayor, and city staff should be more open.
Hopkins said that building trust between the city government and the residents goes hand in hand with building trust between the city council and the city manager. She said that the city council needs to address its position as the employer of record. Hopkins recommends surveys of city staff by a third party and progressive discipline policies that will avoid arbitrary or unexpected disciplinary action.
Jenkins said that he felt hiring a third party was a good idea, but that there was widespread perception of exclusion and possibly unethical behavior. He said that a new city council slate would offer a fresh start and that regular town hall-style meetings would help foster better communication.
“I have not felt at every [city council] meeting that there is a genuine sense of empathy and understanding towards the concerns and experiences of residents,” Jenkins said.
Moore emphasized communication with residents said that he thinks town hall meetings will be important for months and possibly years, and that he encourages residents to attend city council work sessions to voice comments on agenda items before city council members have made up their minds.
Perkins said that solutions have to start with the council. Active listening, taking resident questions seriously, and not evading direct questions from the public or journalists.
“You can’t outsource leadership culture,” Perkins said.
Candidates were asked if they believe that Clarkston needs a dedicated human resources department.
Johnson said yes, that the city is currently planning to outsource HR services, and not having one can lead to conflicts between employees and their supervisors.
Hopkins agreed, saying that the city needs HR staff not just for problems but for routine paperwork.
“With between 50 and 60 employees, we definitely warrant a human resources person,” Hopkins said.
Jenkins said that he is in favor of hiring an HR person, but not relinquishing control over HR functions to a third party.
Moore agreed that the city needs an HR person, but added that the rules about city council members communicating with employees were intended to prevent council members from circumventing the city manager’s authority, not prevent staff from bringing problems to them.
Perkins said that for a small municipality, there are reasons both to keep HR functions within the city and to hire a third party. Perkins added that in any case, external review is crucial.
“You shouldn’t be handing your review of your supervisor to your supervisor. That’s just unhealthy on so many levels,” Perkins said.
Each candidate was invited to make an opening statement before answering questions.
Johnson said that she has served on the city council for four years and that her focus as a council member is transparency and inclusion.
“We need to include every aspect of the community in our decision-making,” Johnson said.
Hopkins said that her reason for being on the city council is to promote the well-being of Clarkston’s residents.
“There are a lot of ways that a local government like our city council can have a huge impact on that, from traffic to public safety to the parks,” Hopkins said, adding that it was important to be mindful of the limits on what a city can and can’t do.
Jenkins spoke of his lifelong connection to the Clarkston community and his experience as a psychologist in helping people overcome challenges.
“From enhancing access to mental health resources to promoting youth development and education to supporting local businesses and fostering economic growth, I’m deeply committed to addressing these issues head-on,” Jenkins said.
Moore said that he has worked with the city in various capacities since 2007, beginning with serving on the zoning and review committee. Moore was elected to the city council in 2009 and helped change the city’s government to the current city manager-council model. Since losing his seat in 2017, Moore has served on the historic preservation committee.
Moore added that he wants to continue good work such as the greenway project that the city has started over the last 10 years.
Perkins said that he was originally elected to finish out someone else’s term and did not run for re-election because of a family health crisis.
Perkins said that he ran to foster an environment in which problems could be solved and that as a city council member, he encouraged long-term strategic thinking. Perkins feels that Clarkston has tremendous potential that is not being tapped into because of a lack of collaborative problem-solving on the city council and other areas of the city.
“My hope is to be entrusted again with that leadership responsibility by the community, to continue to grow our community in healthy ways for our kids and our families,” Perkins said.
Candidates were asked to make a case for someone living in unincorporated DeKalb to be annexed into the city.
Johnson said that the city’s millage rate is not much higher, but the Clarkston police response is better compared to the county. Johnson acknowledged that after recent events, it would take some time to demonstrate stability.
Hopkins said that the very first meeting she attended as a city council member included an extensive annexation discussion that inspired a lot of opposition and that the council declined to consider.
Hopkins said that any annexation question must include feedback not just from people in the area to be annexed, but from the rest of Clarkston as well.
Jenkins said that he knows there are many benefits to the city for annexation, including improving the tax base, but that without buy-in from residents, it should not proceed.
Moore said that he didn’t know that he could make that case for someone to join the city, in light of recent events. However, he pointed out that two of the people running for city council live in areas that were previously annexed.
“We need to get our house in order before we talk to people about doing this,” Moore said.
Perkins said that while the city hasn’t put its best foot forward recently, it’s important to think long-term. He said that if the city doesn’t expand, it runs the risk of stagnation.
Inclusionary zoning and affordable housing
Candidates were asked if they favor inclusionary zoning that would encourage developers to set aside affordable housing units in new multifamily developments.
Johnson said that working with developers has been and is likely to be the way to create more affordable housing, but that units in previous developments filled up almost instantly.
“We need housing. We need our community to be met at least halfway when it comes to affordability,” Johnson said, adding that new developments are generally not affordable to current residents.
Hopkins said that she absolutely would support inclusionary zoning, but that housing affordability is a complex problem. She said that converting an owner-occupied home into rental units for multiple families for less money per month does not create long-term well-being, as the families will pay for someone else’s equity in the home and have nothing to show for it. Hopkins added that there’s less of a housing shortage than an overload of investors who buy up property to rent back to residents.
Jenkins said Clarkston is extremely diverse and needs an affordable housing policy to create a more equitable community. He added that housing policy could address gentrification and displacement.
Moore called affordable housing a universal problem, and he favored multiple approaches.
“I’m open to any options that anyone can come up with to provide affordability,” Moore said.
Perkins said that it’s complicated, and some experts in the field have questioned that specific approach by pointing out that percentages of affordable units are often only temporary and incentivized through tax breaks.
Perkins said that he isn’t against the idea, but that the city needs to make sure that the policy actually increases affordability.
Perkins added that a city government in Georgia only has two ways to increase affordability: one is to buy property and create housing managed by the city, and the other is to create more housing options.
Attracting new businesses to Clarkston
In response to a question about how candidates would attract more businesses to the city, Hopkins said that the city has recently hired a new economic development director who is still creating a plan but has exciting ideas.
Hopkins said that one important consideration is encouraging businesses who hire the many Clarkston residents who are new Americans and who frequently have language barriers. Hopkins said that they frequently wind up working in the chicken plants in Gainesville, and she would like to see those residents able to find local employment.
“We are never going to have a café culture,” Hopkins said, pointing out that Clarkston’s average income is too low to support the kind of businesses that are characteristic of Oakhurst or Decatur.
Jenkins said that he feels expanding restaurants and local groceries would provide employment and also bring small businesses into the city. Jenkins said the city should encourage festivals and promote art that reflects Clarkston’s diversity.
Moore agrees that the arts and culture of the city will help attract more businesses, and added that slowing traffic tends to help as well.
Moore agreed with Hopkins that some types of businesses require disposable income.
Perkins said that disposable income does exist in the city and that he can think of three or four cafés off the top of his head. He added that in any new development, the city needs to find a balance between supporting existing businesses that cater to current residents and those aimed at expansion.
Perkins pointed to both the Stone Mountain-Decatur PATH and the city’s diverse food culture as assets and said that he would like to see more family-friendly spaces.
Diversity and inclusion
Candidates were asked about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the city, and what they would do as council members.
Hopkins said that despite being frequently billed as the most diverse square mile in the United States, the city had no advisory committee on equity and inclusion when she started on the city council, so she created one.
Hopkins added that translation services for all city materials and services is the most crucial priority. She wants to see translation as a separate line item in the city budget because it otherwise gets forgotten.
Jenkins said that diversity and inclusion are crucial to a thriving, representative local government. Jenkins said that he would seek diverse participants for city committees.
Jenkins said that he would advocate for policies that create equal opportunity, oppose discrimination, and improve accessibility and affordability.
Moore said that everyone needs to be included.
“Our most valuable asset is our people, wherever they’ve come from and wherever they’re going,” Moore said. He added that a central communication hub would be useful to everyone.
Perkins said that it was important to make sure that diversity and inclusion are not just lip service.
“We need to make sure that our decisions are being informed by a representative group within our community,” Perkins said.
In her closing statement, which she gave before leaving the forum early due to a prior conflict, Johnson restated that she is focused on transparency, and public safety including raising police officer pay, and economic development.
“I will remain steadfast in my commitment to the community,” Johnson said.
Hopkins said that she feels that it’s important for Clarkston to develop its outdoor community spaces, and foster a safe walkable city that everyone can share.
“I think Clarkston is a beautiful town, I’ve lived here for more than ten years, and I want to help preserve that for the people of Clarkston,” Hopkins said.
Jenkins said that he feels that Clarkston’s diversity can be its greatest strength and that he will advocate for equity, affordable housing, and economic opportunities for all.
Moore said that the city has some “housekeeping” to do, both in terms of city staff organization and city properties.
Moore said that it’s important to realize that some things can take a long time. Moore pointed out some of the projects that are just now coming to fruition are ones that he suggested ten years ago, and he looks forward to guiding the city forward.
Perkins said that one of the things that is holding Clarkston back is the need for a culture on the council that can solve complex problems, listen well, and be innovative. Perkins said that being small and diverse are strengths, but they require a flexible leadership approach and good management of resources.
“While we have made some progress, I think it’s taking longer than it needs to,” Perkins said.
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